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Meet NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite: What’s The TESS Mission Up To?

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NASA is bracing for a planet-finding mission to scout for planets beyond the solar system in the hope of discovering rocky worlds like Venus and Earth.

In the two-year mission, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite will track smaller planets with brighter host stars as the mission gets operational by 2018.

What makes the Explorer-class planet finder unique is that it will be the first-ever all-sky transit survey.

The mission's principal investigator George Ricker will be hosted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the project management is from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

TESS Mission Mandate

TESS will deploy 26 observation centers in the sky.

• Minimum 27 days of scanning for each 24° × 96° sector
• Plan for 1-minute cadence for brightest 200,000 stars
• Full-frame images with 30-minute cadence
• Mapping of Southern Hemisphere in the first year
• Mapping of Northern Hemisphere in the second year

"The search for exoplanets is a bit like a funnel where you pour in lots of stars," explained Sara Seager, TESS Deputy Science Director from the MIT, who added that the challenge will be to find or isolate the rocky planets from too many non-rocky planets.

What makes the mission unique is that it departs from the conventional focus on faint stars lying at a considerable distance. In the new mission, TESS will focus more on brighter stars.

The observations and data obtained by TESS will be followed up by the James Webb Space Telescope and Hubble Space Telescope.

The mission is expected to map out planets and atmospheres at the rate of an average 1,500 transiting exoplanets including Earth-sized and super-Earth planets.

"The problem is that we've had very few exoplanet targets that are good for follow-up," said Stephen Rinehart, TESS Project Scientist. He exuded the confidence that the TESS mission will signal a radical change.

The brightness of more than 200,000 stars will be studied along with causes for dipping brightness caused by planetary transits that result from planets getting caught directly before a parent star.

The TESS Science Center will analyze the data as it is putting together many co-investigators and working groups.

The mission will be backed by NASA's Webb telescope and ground-based telescopes with spectroscopy to determine the atmospheres of exoplanets. This will be done by mounting the surveillance on the chemical signatures of light that passes through the exoplanets' atmospheres.

From the signature, scientists can tell the composition of chemicals in the planetary atmosphere in terms of their volumes.

The TESS study will also be a pioneer in ascertaining a planet's habitability.

"There are a couple of things we like to see as a potential for habitability - one of them is water, because as far as we know, all life that we're familiar with depends on water in some way," Rinehart said.

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